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What Autism Can Look Like

Autism can be confused with misbehavior. Here are three different behaviors that are common in children with autism, and suggestions on the best way to respond to them.

While more information than ever is available about autism, there are still many stereo types about autism.

Stereo type 1: The severe disabled child that is unable to communicate, has no selfcare skills or daily life skills and must depend on people around them for all of their daily needs.

Stereotypes 2: The brilliant child that's mathematically, scientifically or musically inclined with a very high IQ but has very limited social skills.

Autism expert Dr. Stephen Shore, who happens to be on the autism spectrum himself, says, “Once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism"

Meaning, that the symptoms that make up the diagnosis of autism is different for each child. Each person with autism is an unique individual with their own quirks and characteristics.

Many children with autism will exhibit behaviors that don’t look like autism stereotypes and, instead, might look like misbehavior. However, they are still autism behaviors. Below are kinds of behaviors which our many children may display in the classroom.

Intermittent Mutism When children with autism experiences strong emotions, good or bad, the speech center of their brain may stop working for a short period of time while it processes the emotion. If someone asks them a question during this moment, they may be unable to answer verbally.

This can be a common occurrence in people on the autism spectrum. It doesn’t mean that they’re not paying attention or are being defiant, disrespectful, or uncooperative. It may simply mean that their brain needs more time to process a response.

Repetitive Body Movements A very common symptom of autism is “stimming,” a repetitive body movement such as shaking a hand, kicking a leg or stamping a foot. A child might use stimming for different reasons. Most children, use it as a calming strategy, often in response to sensory overload—bright lights, lots of movement, lots of noise or chatter in a classroom, strong smells, students brushing up against them.

Other children may stim as a means of increasing stimulus. This can be seen during quiet times in the classroom when a child is expected to sit still and listen. In this case the stim is used to stimulate the nervous system.

Stimming doesn’t mean that a student is bored or doesn’t want to be there. It isn’t an attention-getting device or a way to disrupt the lesson. His nervous system is driving the behavior—it’s not voluntary and is not always something he can control.

When stim might disturb students, an IEP accommodation might be put in place which would allow the child to leave the classroom and go to a quiet space until they are ready to return.

One thing a teacher should never do is draw negative attention to a stim or try to publicly pressure or shame a student into stopping.

This can increase anxiety and make the stimming worse. Trying to stop the stim outright can result in traumatic meltdowns.

Task Avoidance Sometimes a student may refuse to do classwork. Ninety-five percent of the time it’s not because they are being defiant or “simply don't want to do it”—it is because something else is going on.

Understanding the underlying source of the behavior can be tricky and is often the cause of frustration for both teacher and student. Many times it could be something sensory that's upsetting the process. It's important to communicate with the child.

Keys for Understanding Children With Autism

The takeaways from these examples can be applied with all children on the autism spectrum:

  1. Start with the assumption that the child wants to do his or her best.

  2. If rewards and consequences are not working as a first approach, a teacher should look to understand and eliminate the cause of the behavior.

  3. Be patient and creative in determining the cause.

  4. Be patient and creative in finding a solution that meets both the child’s needs and those of the teacher.

The most important recommendation is to work closely and collaboratively with the child’s special education team and use the same techniques, strategies, and tools in the general education setting that are being used with the student in the special education setting.


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